By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Tracy Kujawa
The family that works together, grows together. For nearly 40 years, the Wilburn sisters have been producing top Welsh ponies at their Rollingwoods Farm in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
What started out as Dr. Ruth Wilburn’s dream to breed quality ponies eventually ended up as a way of life for her and two of her sisters, Joanna Wilburn and Sally Ross Davis. “The ponies are so addictive and our family is very close, so it was a no-brainer to join my sisters in this adventure,” Sally Ross said.
Fueled by hard work, laughter and determination, the trio has succeeded in making Dr. Ruth’s dream a reality. To date Rollingwoods Farm has bred over 225 ponies, both purebred and part-bred Welsh.
Not only have the sisters been able to produce beautiful, athletic, kid-friendly ponies, they’re no strangers to the winner’s circle. Over the years, Rollingwoods ponies have won numerous year-end national championships in open pony hunter divisions as well as various Welsh divisions with US Equestrian and the Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America (WPCSA).
Rollingwoods Farm has also been recognized multiple times as Leading Welsh Breeder by US Equestrian and has been awarded the Breeders Order of the Dragon by the WPCSA. This award has only been granted a few times and is given to breeders that have had a significant and lasting impact upon the breed as evidenced through the performance of their ponies in the show ring.
Despite growing up in a household where neither parent had a real interest in horses, the Wilburn girls weren’t easily dissuaded. “Our neighbors had horses. We begged, borrowed and stole rides,” Dr. Ruth said.
In addition to easy access to horses close to home, the girls had a secret weapon when it came to igniting their horse passion: their grandfather. “Our grandfather first started us down the slippery slope of horses and ponies. Our parents weren’t horsey at all, but my grandfather made sure he fed that beast,” Sally Ross said.
In fact, their grandfather bought Dr. Ruth and Joanna their first horses as Christmas presents. “Mine was a silver dapple Shetland pony named Pony Boy,” Joanna said.
“And mine was a little saddle horse mare, crazy as a loon,” Dr. Ruth added.
From Christmas ponies, the sisters moved on to Quarter Horses with which they ran barrels and did pole bending. “We did what we called the Saturday night saddle club shows; we’d be there until all hours of the night horsing around. Our mother, who was more into being a socialite, was concerned about us being out all night with those horse people. She thought they were riffraff,” Dr. Ruth said.
In the “riffraff,” the Wilburn sisters found camaraderie amongst kindred spirits and fell further down the slippery slope of being hooked on horses.
Sharing the Dream
A year after graduating from veterinary school, Dr. Ruth bought the Olive Branch Animal Clinic. Still wanting to pursue her riding goals, she decided she wanted to learn to jump. “I found a trainer up the road. She didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any money, so we bartered things out,” Dr. Ruth said.
After a while, people started “gifting” Dr. Ruth with old, crippled mares. “They would say, ‘That would be a good place to live, with Dr. Ruth,’” Dr. Ruth said. “I ended up with a Quarter Horse mare that was really well bred, an Anglo-Arab mare whose offspring ended up producing many top hunter ponies for Helicon and another purebred Welsh mare with a lot of Farnley breeding in her.”
With a field full of mares, Dr. Ruth’s trainer decided they should start breeding Welsh hunter ponies. After some research, Dr. Ruth discovered Gayfields Welsh Ponies was just across the river from the clinic and they had recently imported two stallions, *Sleight of Hand and *Pendock Masterpiece. “Gayfields didn’t have a vet and I didn’t have money, so we traded out stallion services for veterinary work,” Dr. Ruth said.
Not only did the stallions from Gayfields get the breeding ball rolling at Rollingwoods, but also, Gail Morris Thomson of Gayfields imparted bloodline knowledge to Dr. Ruth.
In 1983, Rollingwoods Farm breeding business was born. Dr. Ruth wanted some help, so she enlisted Joanna and Sally Ross. Joanna needed a change of pace, so Dr. Ruth invited her to live on the farm and work in the clinic.
Once Joanna moved to the farm, Dr. Ruth immediately put her to work. “I told her if you’re going to live here you need to come feed the horses to help pay the rent,” Dr. Ruth said. “We always enjoyed doing the horses together, so I knew she’d be game.”
Younger sister Sally Ross was in college at Ole Miss at the time. “Even though it was about two hours from the clinic, she’d come to the farm almost every day and do pony stuff with us,” Dr. Ruth said. “Sally Ross says we wouldn’t let her go to the shows until she learned a skill, so she learned to braid. We are quite blessed to have a braider extraordinaire in residence.”
With the band back together, it was time to start producing winners.
Breeding the Best
At the heart of the Rollingwoods Farm breeding operation is the desire to breed a pretty, athletic pony with a good brain that can do whatever is asked of him. “If a pony has a good shoulder, good rear end, good brain and is athletic, it can do just about anything,” Dr. Ruth said. “Our ponies have gone on to compete in the hunters, driving, dressage and even eventing.”
Currently there are three stallions on the farm with their own roles: Rollingwoods Easy As L, Rollingwoods Cookie Thief and Lands End Foxtail. Easy As L and Cookie Thief are senior members of the herd at 25 and 20 years old respectively.
“Easy As L is sterile, but lives with our mares so that keeps him happy. As a homebred, we haven’t bred Cookie Thief much to our mares because he’s so related to everything,” Dr. Ruth said. That’s why Dr. Ruth leased Lands End Foxtail from Bernadette Pupilla two years ago and is keeping him another year to breed to their own mares. Various Gayfields stallions are also still used as part of the breeding operation.
“When we started, the stallion we used the most was *Sleight Of Hand. Well known in the Welsh world, he’s produced a lot of athletic ponies that have been successful in the hunters. We found our magic cross was using *Sleight Of Hand on *Pendock Masterpiece mares,” Dr. Ruth said. Rollingwoods ended up keeping many of the *Sleight Of Hand daughters.
Dr. Ruth likes to send the mares to work prior to breeding them. “They need to prove that they are trainable and work for a while before they get bred,” Dr. Ruth said.
The majority of Rollingwoods offspring become hunter ponies or driving ponies. “In an ideal world, we’d like the ponies to make their new owners happy whether it’s driving, riding or just having a companion animal. We want people to enjoy our ponies. Of course, we love it when a satisfied owner contacts the farm and has to tell us about their Rollingwoods pony,” Dr. Ruth said.
A tight-knit family from the get-go, working together at Rollingwoods Farm has only enhanced the closeness the sisters have always felt. However, like any family, there is such a thing as too much togetherness. “We keep the peace by having our ‘division of powers,’” Joanna said. “We always talk about the business, but we each have our own particular duty.”
Dr. Ruth handles the checkbook, stallion bookings and does everything veterinary. Joanna is the farm manager, taking care of day-to-day business. “The breeding division and most of the show stock live with me. Since I have most of the herd, I’m not in charge of sales — my prices are one pony is $5, two are $7.50 and if you buy three, I’ll deliver them for free,” Joanna joked.
As Joanna does a lot of the hands-on training with the ponies, from weaning to desensitizing and even driving for some, she really gets to know each of the ponies. “I know their personalities, habits and what type of kid or program will work best for them,” Joanna said.
An accountant by trade, Sally Ross handles all sales. “If you go to the farm and ask the price of a pony, both Ruth and Joanna will call me and ask what we want for that pony,” Sally Ross said.
“If Sally Ross says, ‘This is what the pony is worth and this is what we will sell it for,’ you don’t mess with it,” Dr. Ruth said. “People come to us thinking they’ll divide and conquer, but it doesn’t work like that.”
Sally Ross’ sales philosophy is simple: If you don’t want an honest answer then don’t ask the question. “I don’t want a client unhappy and I definitely don’t want my pony unhappy, so this just makes a better sales experience. My goal is to match the pony with the rider, so when they want another pony they know where to come shopping,” Sally Ross said.
The division of duties has been the key to happiness between the sisters. “We very rarely disagree on anything major and if we do then we defer to Ruth. If Joanna and I agree we can override Ruth, but it doesn’t usually get that far,” Sally Ross said.
For the Wilburn sisters, family is more than blood or a last name. “I always tell potential buyers to beware, because when you buy a pony from us you become part of the family,” Sally Ross said.
Future of the Farm
With much success behind them, the trio feels the best is yet to come. The current business plan is to breed three to five foals a year, retaining certain fillies for future breeding stock.
“We intend to be breeding and showing forever. We’re always looking for more ways to ignite the love of Welsh in future generations,” Joanna said.
A family breed, the Welsh pony world is a tight-knit family for all involved. “That’s one of the best things about the venture: We have our own family that’s close and then get to see our extended Welsh family at shows,” Dr. Ruth said.
“Our mother always wanted to know when we were going to grow out of the ponies, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen,” Sally Ross said. “My sisters are my best friends and I don’t see that changing.”
For more information, visit rollingwoodsfarm.wordpress.com
Photos by Tracy Kujawa, angelheartfarm.com